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Like the rest of South East Asia, Thailand offers a lot to travellers. Beautiful beaches and landscapes, great weather, fantastic food and inexpensive prices make it an appealing destination, and many millions of visitors flock to the country every year.
For those looking to stay connected while they’re there, the good news is that buying a local SIM card is a straightforward and inexpensive process, with decent data speeds and good coverage almost everywhere.
Here’s what you need to know.
There are three cell networks in Thailand, operated by dtac, AIS and TrueMove. While you can also buy SIM cards and service from resellers, there’s little point in doing so for most short-term visitors to the country.
AIS has the largest market share, and also has a large network of Wi-fi hotspots that you can access as part of the more expensive packages. It seems like you’re rarely far from one of these hotspots, which don’t count towards your mobile data allowance.
The company sells prepaid service under the 1-2-Call and you! Mobile brands. Although the latter provides more flexibility, most travellers will find themselves using 1-2-Call SIMs as they’re more widely available.
I’ve used dtac’s Happy prepaid service in the past, but now tend to stick with AIS due to those Wi-fi hotspots. 3G is available on the 900 and 2100Mhz bands, while 4G/LTE is provided on 1800 and 2100Mhz (LTE bands 1 and 3.) AIS has LTE service in 80%+ of the country, including all major cities and towns.
Like many other things in Thailand, buying a SIM card is simple. If you fly into Bangkok’s main Suvarnabhumi airport, all three cell companies have booths beside each other in the arrival hall. They all offer pretty much the same tourist-focused packages, which are aimed mainly at those spending a week or less in the country.
There’s a similar setup at Bangkok’s other airport, Don Mueang, and it’s possible to buy SIMs at both Chiang Mai and Phuket airports as well. If you’re in a hurry and not in the country for long, feel free to pick up one of these tourist packages — but for better deals, seek out one of the company’s retail shops outside the airport.
Thailand bought in stricter registration requirements for buying SIMs in late 2017, which means the day of just handing over cash at the corner store are gone, at least in theory. At both airport stalls and retail stores, foreigners now need to provide their passport and have their photo taken when buying a local SIM.
I experienced this first hand at an AIS store in a shopping mall in Bangkok, where the staff member took a copy of my passport and snapped a photo of me on a tablet as part of the purchase process. I’m really not a fan of onerous identification requirements like these, but unless you’re buying from a street vendor and are happy with a used SIM that could be shut off at any time, you’re pretty much stuck with it.
On the upside, at least the rest of the process was relatively painless. I took a number for an English-speaking sales rep, picked a call/text/data package from a printed brochure at the counter, and handed over the money. The rep did the rest, including activating the SIM, loading my credit onto it, and selecting the right package. It took about ten minutes in total, and the SIM worked immediately.
Don’t want to wait until you get to Thailand to get your local SIM card? Buy it in advance instead!
SIM Easy offers free worldwide shipping on Thai SIM cards, letting you get set up ahead of time. Just drop in your new card when you land and you’ll be connected before you even leave baggage claim, with plenty of data to last through your trip.
If you buy one of the AIS tourist packages at the airport, you’ll pay 299 baht ($10) for a card with 1.5GB of data valid for a week, plus 100 baht call credit valid for a month. There’s also a 599 baht package that gives 6GB of data valid for two weeks, plus that same 100 baht call credit.
Both are poor value compared to purchasing outside the airport, but if you’re in a hurry and happy to pay for convenience, it’s an option.
If you buy your SIM card from a retail store, you’ll have access to the full range of packages. They are many and varied, with validity ranging from a day to a month.
I bought two different packages from the AIS store in Bangkok, one for my partner, one for me. Each SIM card cost 50 baht (~$1.60), and for 427 baht including tax (~$14), I received 3GB of LTE data valid for a month, plus access to the high-speed AIS SUPER WI-FI network. I also added a few extra baht to cover the occasional call and text.
For 321 baht including tax, the other package had unlimited data throttled to 1Mbps speed, valid for a month. It’s a good alternative for people who just need slow-but-usable data for a few weeks.
You can buy top-ups pretty much anywhere in Thailand, including many convenience stores, AIS retail locations, and several other places. Just keep an eye out for the AIS / 1-2-Call logo. It’s also possible to top up online with a credit/debit card on the AIS website.
No matter how you top up, you may then need to purchase or renew the actual package you want to use. Be sure to do this, as the default call, text, and data rates aren’t particularly cheap.
Calling *777# from your phone should give an interactive menu for choosing your package — take a look on the AIS site for more details. To switch your AIS SIM from Thai to English, enter *700*9*7*2# and wait a minute or two for the confirmation text.
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Coverage and Data Speeds
AIS coverage is good almost anywhere you’re likely to go as a tourist, and much of the rest of the country as well.
I’ve had full signal most of the time in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and other provincial capitals, as well as on bus and scooter trips in the countryside and on several islands. I even had signal for a while after crossing the border into Cambodia, at least until I got outside the range of the last Thai cell tower.
Data speeds are reasonable, but definitely vary depending on where you are, and how busy the cell tower is that you’re using. I had much faster LTE speeds in Chiang Mai than Bangkok, for instance.
It’s also worth mentioning the exceptional speed of the AIS SUPER WI-FI network. I regularly saw over 150Mbps download speeds when connected to it, and since it doesn’t count towards your cellular data allowance, it’s well worth using this network if your SIM package includes access to it.